November 23, 2010 — It was food and fellowship with a local flavor one week early at the annual "100-mile Thanksgiving" potluck dinner.
More than 100 people gathered Thursday at the Westminster Presbyterian Church on Rugby Road for the meal, with participants bringing dishes made with ingredients that came from within 100 miles of Charlottesville.
The dinner is the creation of University of Virginia professor Tim Beatley, who started it five years ago to promote "locavore" diets. The meal, organized by graduate students, is modeled on the "100-Mile Diet," by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon, two Canadian writers who chronicled their efforts to eat only regional food.
Beatley, the Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities in the School of Architecture, said while the department had held Thanksgiving dinners for a long time, this was a new challenge.
"The students five years ago really rose to the occasion," he said at the dinner. "It was a marvelous opportunity to learn about our foodshed and discover what was being produced."
While the meal is a private affair for members of the urban planning program and their families, several local farmers and food processers attended, including Joe Cloud, owner of True & Essential Meats; Brett Wilson, founder of Horse and Buggy Produce; and Wendy and Richard Harrison, owners of the Farm at Red Hill.
"It is a celebration of our extended community, of the University and farmers and producers and others in the region who sustain us," Beatley said.
This year's meal featured three turkeys from Polyface Farm outside Staunton, accompanied by several sweet potato dishes, multiple varieties of cornbread, butternut squash, bread pudding, several soups and lots of dishes made with local greens. Participants provided crème brûlée and pies for dessert.
Leftovers were not an issue.
"Everything was gone," said Jen O'Brien, a second-year graduate student in urban planning and one of this year's organizers. "People will linger while there is still food to eat."
Generally a vegetarian, O'Brien admits to indulging in meat occasionally and took this occasion to sample one of the Polyface turkeys. Each bird was cooked by a different chef using his or her individual recipes.
"The one I tried had cider inside and slices of apple underneath the skin," she said. "It was delicious."
It was also an opportunity for consumers to sit and break bread with producers.
"It was a lot of fun," said Wendy Harrison, whose farm supplies locally made salsa to the Fine Arts Café and some of the food vendors in Newcomb Hall. "The students are familiar with our name and some of the students who work the community garden start seeds in our greenhouses, but this was a chance to meet with them."
A 1981 U.Va. graduate with a degree in psychology, Harrison said times had changed since her school days.
"When I was a student here, there was no thought of connecting with the local community, much less with the local farmers," she said. "This is a chance for the students to get a feel for how much work is involved in producing their food."
Harrison is encouraged to see the interest the students show in agriculture.
"The young people who are interested in agriculture can see that all farmers are not old and that there can be a future in it," Harrison said. "They have a lot of good ideas."
The students don't just meet farmers at the dinner. The 100-Mile Thanksgiving is more an ongoing process than a one-shot meal. The graduate students organize tours of farms and food processers and learn skills such as canning.
O'Brien took canning classes from Lena Zentgraf, kitchen coordinator at Haven at First and Market, a daytime shelter for the homeless and the poor that also connects them with community services. Canning is a skill and an art to which O'Brien was not exposed as a child.
"I grew up not being aware of where my food came from," she said.
O'Brien was drawn to U.Va. because of Beatley and his program.
"I was living in Northern Virginia, but I was interested in the more rural part of the state," she said. "I knew I wanted to study food systems and this seemed like the place I needed to be. There are more opportunities here than I have time to participate in. There is a lot more going on here than I knew."